Operations suspended at Luster Heights

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On Feb. 8, the Iowa Department of Corrections announced a suspension of operations at four facilities, including Luster Heights, located near Harpers Ferry. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

Luster Heights Correctional Facility, located outside Harpers Ferry, has been on the chopping block before.

“This happens every few years in February, at budget time,” noted McGregor City Administrator Lynette Sander.

It’s always managed to stave off closure, though, most recently in 2009 and again in 2013. This time around, however, Luster Heights, which is a minimum-security satellite facility of Anamosa State Penitentiary, won’t be so lucky.

On Feb. 8, Iowa Department of Corrections (DOC) Director Jerry Bartruff announced a suspension of operations at four units, including Luster Heights, the Lodge Unit in Clarinda, the John Bennett Unit in Fort Madison and the Sheldon Residential Treatment Facility.

The move was made, Bartruff said, in order to cut the Department of Corrections’ fiscal year 2017 budget by $5.5 million.

“The decision to suspend services at the locations was the option that best preserved the public safety, as well as the operational integrity of the remaining institutions and community-based corrections,” said Lettie Prell, director of research for the DOC.

The news left many in the area stunned.

“This week, the decisions we make became real. I was as stunned by everyone else by the news of the closing of Luster Heights,” said District 56 State Rep. Kristi Hager, who’s from Waukon. “I realize this closing affects our local communities’ economies.”

Hager and District 28 State Senator Michael Breitbach said the DOC was impacted by the legislature’s de-appropriation bill to reduce spending in the current fiscal year. They have both met with Gov. Terry Branstad and prison officials to discuss the situation.

“The governor has allowed the prison system to determine the course of action they will take, and they indicated they couldn’t safely cut staff at the maximum security locations,” Breitbach noted.

According to Prell, as of last week, 13 staff were employed at Luster Heights.

“Many staff at Luster Heights will have the opportunity to work in other units or institutions within the department,” she explained.

“For many of these employees and their families, this is a life changing event,” Breitbach added. “I’m hopeful that we might find other positions that can utilize their skills and keep them closer to where they currently live.”

Prell said Luster Heights had 69 inmates in residence last week. The facility has a capacity of 88 inmates, with most being non-violent offenders who are nearing release.

“A number of these individuals have already been granted release and will continue to work through their placement plans,” Prell stated. “Others will come back into the main institution or move to other institutions, possibly closer to where they are planning on returning when released from prison.”

Prell said the process of beginning the suspension of services has already begun, and that the DOC is proceeding thoughtfully.

All inmates at Luster Heights have jobs at the facility, either cooking, cleaning, cutting wood, tending the gardens or performing other maintenance tasks. Many learn woodworking skills.

Some also have jobs outside the facility, working for the Iowa DNR in Yellow River State Forest, or in area communities, like Marquette and McGregor.

The city of Marquette has one, and sometimes two, inmate workers who put in 40 hours per week. Two more work 40-hour weeks for the city of McGregor. Their labor costs the cities $5 per day.

According to Jason Sullivan, Marquette’s Public Works Director, inmates perform much of the city’s lawn mowing. They also pick up litter, trim weeds, paint, help maintain city buildings and shovel sidewalks during the winter. 

“They’re quite a bit of help,” he said. “It was nice to have that third hand. They’re going to be missed.”

In McGregor, said Sander, inmates have a set routine of mowing and garbage and yard waste pick-up. They water flowers, help maintain storm drains, wash vehicles and put up Christmas decorations. Inmates also help with the Bluff Garden and perform tasks for the park board, including aiding in the installation of the new Turner Park playground equipment last spring.

“The city workers have even gone up to get them on Sundays if there’s a blizzard,” Sander said. 

Their help will be missed in the winter, she remarked. The inmates shovel the sidewalks, which often takes over a day to complete.

Friday was the last day the inmates worked for the cities, leaving city leaders wondering how to fill the void.

“We’re going to have to work harder and smarter,” Sullivan said.

“We might bring in someone part-time, but we can’t afford a full-time person,” Sander commented. “Things won’t get done, or at least not as fast, so people will have to get used to that.”

Sander said she takes issue with the abrupt timing of the decision.

“Denise [Schneider, Marquette’s City Manager,] has already published her budget, and mine is basically done,” she said. “No one was contemplating having to hire an extra person.”

“The announcement was made as soon after finalizing the plans as was possible,” Prell defended. “We did not delay the announcement.”

Aside from the impact the closing of Luster Heights will have on staff and the local communities, it’s also a blow to inmates.

Luster Heights, through the work opportunities it offers, has often been heralded for giving inmates skills that will prepare them for the workforce and life following release.

“We value providing programs and experiences for inmates that assist them when they return to our communities,” Prell said. “Our institutions offer substance abuse programs, education, vocational training, apprenticeship programs and more.”

The chance that these opportunities will again be offered in Northeast Iowa is uncertain, she added: “We will wait to see how legislative action on the fiscal year 2018-2019 budget shapes up before we make any further decisions regarding these units.”

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